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4.08.2004

What is "Liberal Bias"?

The blog “Oh, That Liberal Media” brings up some good questions but unfortunately doesn’t attempt to answer the most fundamental question “How is liberal bias to be defined?” nor does it provide us with examples of unbiased journalism, only corrections of bad journalism, nor does it give examples of pieces that might be viewed as “conservative bias.”

Based on the posts, or at least the ones available today, we can attempt to draw some conclusions about what the critics mean by “liberal bias” in the LA Times: criticism of, or lack of support for certain Supreme Court Justices, abortion, gun rights, Israel, the criminal justice system, esp. harsh sentences, and Republican President George W. Bush. These constitute “liberal.” As to what constitutes “bias,” we can focus on the use of verbs, adjectives, and the placement early or late in the article of favorable or unfavorable quotes.

But since “liberal bias” goes undefined, even this list may consist of contradictions, or at least inconsistencies. For example, one post criticizes the Times’ bias against the FBI and would therefore list such criticism under the heading of “liberal.” Yet criticism of the FBI has just as often come from so-called conservative groups and individuals such as Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican whose congressional website describes him as a “common sense conservative.”

A similar problem regards support for Israel. To classify unbalanced journalism that appears to go against Israel under “liberal” is to dismiss reported views that the “conservative” Bush administration during its pre-Septemeber 11 months was more critical of Israel than the preceding, “liberal” Clinton administration.

Also consider the posting about the Times’ story on Spain’s new socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The article cited points to several quotations that, in the opinion of the bloggers, use positive adjectives, verbs and nouns for Zapatero, such as the sub-head “Next premier, a listener who cuts a humble figure, will replace the confrontational Aznar,” and negative ones for the aforementioned and outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. One might draw the conclusion that such language is never used for features on newly elected or even returning “conservative” politicians. This we will have to look at.

This is not to say that much of the criticism of particular articles is well-argued. I agree with much of it in regards to the language use and balance.

There are also some journalistic practices that are rightly criticized, namely the general use of “some” or “critics.” These may not be limited to stories viewed as either “liberal” or “conservative.” We will have to see in the weeks ahead.

But we are still left with more questions such as which reporter wrote the articles and whether the problem is more with an individual reporter than an institutional bias at the Times. Unfortunately, Stefan Sharansky or Patterico and a “Captain Ed,” with my apologies to any contributors I missed, don’t list the individual reporter or reporters. This may help us find out if the bias is with the individual reporter.

I don’t conclude here that the problem is with the reporters rather than the institution. But I think it should be discovered before conclusions about institutional bias are drawn.

Absent of any comprehensive or practical definitions of liberal or conservative, I think we need to review stories, ones considered good and bad, ones that might be considered liberal or conservative, and make observations and distinctions that may serve us with better observations than the ones we’ve come across in books, magazines or on the Internet.

In short, let’s present the evidence ourselves and draw our own conclusions.

-S. Schudy
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